Live updates, April 23: NZ suspends travel bubble with Western Australia as Perth announces lockdown

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for April 23, bringing you the latest news updated throughout the day. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

Top story: New ‘very high risk category’; rolling lockdowns for isolation hotels

9.10pm: NZ suspends bubble with Western Australia

New Zealand has announced a “pause” in quarantine-free travel with Western Australia after Perth declared a three-day lockdown. Here is the statement from the office of Covid response minister Chris Hipkins, in full:

“As set out in our Trans-Tasman bubble protocols, travel between New Zealand and Western Australia has been paused, pending further advice from the state government. New Zealand health officials are in contact with their Australian counterparts and are completing a risk assessment.

“A flight due to leave Perth for New Zealand later tonight will not take off following Western Australia’s decision, and any New Zealanders affected are asked to follow the advice of Western Australian authorities. All passengers on an earlier flight from Perth to Melbourne that carried a passenger later found to have Covid-19 have been contact traced and no-one on that flight has travelled on to New Zealand.

“This is an example of the type of scenario both countries have planned for. Another update will be provided tomorrow.”

Covid19.govt.nz

7.00pm: Three-day lockdown for Perth

Western Australian state premier Mark McGowan has announced a three-day lockdown of the city of Perth and the Peel region from midnight. It follows a man in Melbourne testing positive after a fortnight in a Western Australian isolation hotel.

McGowan said a close contact of the man, with whom he stayed in Perth after exiting the hotel, testing positive. It was, he said, an “emerging and serious issue”.

ABC reports that then 54-year-old man left the facility on April 17 and returned to Melbourne on April 21, meaning he spent as long as five days in the community while infectious.

The impact on the trans-Tasman bubble is unclear, but under the traffic light system there is provision for a pause in quarantine-free travel. A direct Air New Zealand flight from Perth to Auckland is scheduled to depart this evening.”

4.15pm: Concern after government limits scope of abuse in care inquiry

A lawyer representing survivors submitting to the Royal Commission into abuse in state care is disappointed with the government’s decision to limit the scope of the inquiry.

At midday today – on the Friday before a long weekend – the government announced that the Royal Commission would no longer be required to look at “modern-day care policy settings” so that its report could be delivered by a June 2023 deadline. It effectively shuts out evidence being provided by those in care since 1999.

The announcement prompted a confused response from the Royal Commission itself, who said it would be speaking to internal affairs minister Jan Tinnetti to clarify the implications for survivors and those in care.

Sonja Cooper, of Cooper Legal, said the move is “inconsistent” with the wishes of survivors. “The decision by cabinet devalues their experiences and may prevent them from engaging with the Royal Commission,” Cooper said in a statement provided to The Spinoff.

“If we are not prepared to listen to those with the most recent care experiences, we have to question the commitment of this government to change.”

Cooper said the change in scope goes against a key purpose of the Inquiry: namely, preventing future abuse. “The narrowed scope will give rise to complacency that the abuse described by survivors is entirely historic – which is just not true,” Cooper added. “Those [in care since 1999] have effectively been silenced by this decision and there is an enormous gap in the care narrative that risks the validity of the Inquiry’s findings” says Ms Cooper.

3.15pm: Australia Week – the best of

This week started with me forced to endure a multi-hour live rendition of Dave Dobbyn’s Welcome Home while stationed at Auckland Airport. Ostensibly there to celebrate and report on the launch of the trans-Tasman bubble, it instead turned into one of the many layers of hell. Since then, however, The Spinoff has covered the best of the inter-country rivalry between New Zealand and Australia.

Here are some of the best bits from AUSTRALIA WEEK:

  • Food editor Alice Neville gives a definitive ruling in the trans-Tasman food face off, answering the important question: who the bloody hell owns what?
  • The first day of the travel bubble was big news, so Tara Ward stayed home and watched it happen on the television.
  • Business editor Michael Andrew takes a look at some of the New Zealand companies that have successfully expanded across the ditch and cemented their place in the hearts, and malls, of Australia.
  • The week’s top story should really be that some Australians find the New Zealand accent sexy. Intrigued? Check out this week’s 10 x 100.

2.40pm: Breaking! Pods chocolate set to leave shelves

Updated

In incredibly important, earth-shattering, breaking news: Pods, the popular pod-shaped confectionary, have been discontinued.

According to TVNZ’s Australian correspondent Andrew MacFarlane, Pods are soon set to leave New Zealand shelves for good.

“We don’t make these decisions lightly,” said Mars New Zealand’s general manager Peter Simmons in a statement. “We always try to balance the expectations of our customers with the needs of our business.”

In even more shocking news, it’s subsequently been confirmed all varieties of Pods will be pulled from shelves. That includes the superior Snickers variety.

As someone who just last night ate three quarters of a bag of Snickers’ Pods at the movies – this is truly devastating news.

2.10pm: No plans for rapid antigen testing of international arrivals to be mandatory

The government has no plans to make rapid antigen testing a requirement for new arrivals to New Zealand.

The tests, which return a result in about 15 minutes, are less reliable than the widely used PCR test – but the speed at which a result is returned could be a useful secondary buffer to stop in-flight transmission while people travel to New Zealand.

Responding to a question from The Spinoff at a briefing in Auckland today, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said rapid antigen testing is not part of the government’s plans for high risk countries. “One of the things we have looked at over the last two weeks is whether we could have different testing methods in place for a country like India and whether that’s logistically feasible, and the advice that we’ve had so far is that it wouldn’t be,” he said.

This will be reviewed on a weekly basis going forward, Hipkins added. “Rapid antigen tests are in some cases being use for pre-departure testing, recognising that it helps to filter out the risk but it is not as reliable as a PCR test. We will require PCR tests for those coming from very high risk countries.”

Hipkins defended the time it took for the government to limit incoming travel from high risk countries and said that, despite skyrocketing case numbers in India, the changes to the MIQ system are about making sure the system doesn’t become swamped.

“We have a robust managed isolation and quarantine system… this is about reducing the risk within that system,” he said.

1.40pm: Close contact group of Covid-positive airport worker grows

Apologies for the delay – but I’m back in the office! Here is today’s Covid-19 update.

The number of close contacts connected to the Covid-positive Auckland Airport worker has increased to 36.

Of those, so far 21 have tested negative with the remaining 15 still awaiting a result. The number has increased since yesterday as this is because the person worked three shifts during their infectious period with a number of colleagues.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health confirmed all 36 were in self-isolation. “Public health officials are in daily communication with all contacts to monitor their health and confirm any upcoming testing dates,” a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, there are no new cases in the community or in managed isolation. The number of active cases in the country has plummeted down 48 to 32 after a large group of people were released from quarantine.
48 previously reported cases have now recovered.

Our total number of confirmed cases is stable at 2,244.

12.15pm: New ‘very high risk category’ created; hotel reshuffle revealed

A new category of “very high risk country” will be created and a new approach to locating arrivals will be introduced, Covid response minister Chris Hipkins has announced.

Very high risk category

The “very high risk” assessment will be based on the proportion of travellers from a country who are Covid-positive on arrival. Those are where more than 50 cases per 1,000 arrivals have been detected. It will only apply where there are more than 15 arrivals over a three month period. The criteria will continue to be developed. The countries that currently meet the threshold are: India, Brazil, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea.

Travellers from those countries will be restricted to New Zealand citizens, their partners and children, as well as parents of children who are citizens. This will cut the number of arrivals by 75%, Hipkins said. This means permanent residents who are not citizens will not be permitted to travel unless they have been outside a very high risk country for at least 14 days before flying to New Zealand.

“I want to stress that this was not an easy decision to make and we do recognise this will have a significant impact on a number of people. This decision has been based entirely on a risk assessment and it will be regularly reviewed. There will be an exceptions process on humanitarian grounds,” said Hipkins.

The new measures will come into force at 11.59pm on Wednesday April 28.

New ‘cohort’ arrivals process

Most managed isolation facilities will move to an “enhanced cohorting or group intake system”. This means that people who arrive on the same plane will be for the most part accommodated in a 96-hour period. Here’s how Hipkins explained it: “Returnees arriving in New Zealand over a 96-hour window will be delivered to MIQ facilities until they’re full or the 96-hour period is over. The facility will then lock down for a 14-day cycle with no additional returnees allowed until after the last cohort has completed their stay and the facilities have been cleaned. We’ll then start the process of filling that facility up again. This will ensure returnees will be in the same facility as others who have arrived at about the same time and importantly it will keep those who have just arrived apart from those who are coming to the end of their stay in isolation.”

It follows cases earlier this year in which cases were detected in the community after being contracted within a hotel.

It follows the freeing up of capacity following the opening of the trans-Tasman bubble.

The new system will kick off at the Pullman hotel tomorrow and will be completed by Sunday May 16, said Hipkins.

11.00am: National claims victory as government moves to risk-based MIQ system

We’re about an hour away from the official announcement regarding how the government will handle arrivals from high risk Covid-19 countries – but National has already claimed a victory.

As reported in the 8.00am update, the government is tipped to lift the India travel ban next week and move to overhaul our MIQ system. That will see all returnees on flights from high risk countries kept together in the same managed isolation facility, rather than split up across the network.

National’s Chris Bishop said it’s a welcome announcement, but overdue.

“Back in January, National proposed precisely this approach and since then we’ve been calling for a traffic light system for MIQ arrivals, where arrivals from high-risk countries would be separated from arrivals coming from low-risk countries,” he said.

“We said then, and repeat now, it simply does not make sense for passengers from higher risk countries like India and the United Kingdom to be treated the same as passengers from lower risk countries like the Pacific Islands.

Bishop said he is calling on the government to adopt other elements of National’s Covid-19 response plan. Namely, rapid antigen testing, daily saliva tests for MIQ workers, and the development of a purpose-built quarantine facility near Auckland.

I’m about to head off to the midday announcement with Chris Hipkins and we’ll have full coverage here in the live updates.

10.50am: Working group on the way for local government

Alex Braae reports:

Local government minister Nanaia Mahuta this morning announced an independent review into how local government needs to evolve over the next 30 years. It comes at a time of major reform for the sector, particularly around the delivery of water services.

Mahuta said the water reforms have been a major driver in why this process has been set in motion, along with the ongoing repeal and replacement of the Resource Management Act.

The review panel will look at the following areas:

  • roles, functions and partnerships
  • representation and governance
  • funding and financing.

“Local councils are essential to maintaining and improving our wellbeing and we need to get the right settings for them to continue delivering their important mahi,” said Mahuta. “They are now facing a wave of reforms that will significantly affect their traditional roles and functions. They have told us the timing is right to determine what our system of local democracy should look like to make sure it is fit for the future, and I agree.”

Mahuta noted that some in the sector are worried that with RMA and water responsibilities being taken off them, there’ll soon be nothing for councils to do. However, she said it gave a chance to reimagine the role of local government. Local Government NZ welcomed the announcement, saying it was an exciting opportunity.

“The operational realities for local government are huge urban growth and tourism pressures, greater focus on environmental protections and climate change pressures, all matched to outdated funding tools,” said LGNZ boss Stuart Crosby.

“Now, with major reform coming down the line, there is an opportunity to make sure both tiers of government are aligned on delivering the best possible outcomes, while enabling local leadership and voice.”

The review panel will consist of John Ombler QSO, Antoine Coffin, Gael Surgenor and Penny Hulse, and will be chaired by former Waimakariri District Council CEO Jim Palmer.

The final report is due back in the middle of 2023.

10.30am: Fuel taxes could soon be a thing of the past – report

Fuel taxes and road user charges could be abolished, according to documents released to Stuff under the Official Information Act.

A report by Thomas Coughlan suggests the transport ministry has been looking at the “future of the revenue system”, and could gradually phase out the reliance on fuel taxes. Every year, the government rakes in about $4 billion from road users.

According to the report, one option on the table is to replace taxes with a GPS toll system that would charge drivers for how often they use the road.

Transport minister Michael Wood said he doesn’t intend to make any decisions about fuel taxes in the short term. “Officials’ advice is that the current revenue system to fund the NLTF is largely fit for purpose until at least the end of this decade based on forecasts,” he told Stuff.

“It’s important transport services and infrastructure are funded sustainably and can be forecasted accurately to give Waka Kotahi and local government certainty.”

Read the full report here

9.30am: Lift off! Details of government backed space mission announced

New Zealand is heading into space… sort of.

Details about a government funded space mission have been unveiled this morning, which will see Kiwi company Rocket Lab manage mission control before handing over responsibility to an Auckland University-based space institute.

Once operational, “MethaneSAT” will map methane pollution from oil and gas around the world.

Research, science and innovation minister Megan Woods said the government has invested $26 million into the programme. “MethaneSAT is a really exciting opportunity to showcase New Zealand’s science and research expertise on the world stage, while making a significant contribution to climate change by mapping agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases,” Woods said.

“The mission will see the New Zealand Space Agency partner with one of the world’s leading environmental NGOs, The Environmental Defense Fund, which will also include a team of leading New Zealand atmospheric science and remote sensing researchers led by NIWA’s Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher.”

It’s a busy day for Woods, who is heading straight from this morning’s space announcement to a far more earthbound housing announcement a little later today.

MethaneSAT image provided by government

MethaneSAT! (Image / Supplied)

8.00am: High risk arrivals will be kept together in MIQ as India flight ban tipped to end

The government is tipped to end the ban on flights from India and instead overhaul our managed isolation system to deal with arrivals from higher risk countries.

According to the Herald’s Derek Cheng, passengers on higher-risk flights will be kept together for their stay in MIQ.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins is set to make the announcement at a press conference in downtown Auckland this afternoon, on the same day India recorded more than 315,000 new cases of Covid-19.

It may seem like an obvious decision to make, but prior to the India flight ban arrivals from the same high risk flight could be sent to different managed isolation hotels – effectively spreading the risk of Covid-19 transmission around several different venues.

Under the new scheme, flights will be kept together in MIQ meaning that if in-flight transmission has occurred, the virus will be contained within a single hotel.

As Alex mentioned in The Bulletin (see below), I’ll be at today’s announcement and we’ll bring you live coverage here in the updates.

7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin

There will be an announcement today on the status of travellers from India, who are temporarily barred from coming into the country. So today, it’s worth a look at how India is faring, because it is a major part of the context for how that decision will be made.

Unfortunately at the moment, the situation in India is dire. Cases are spiking to levels rarely seen in any country over the course of the pandemic. The Times of India reported on modelling that showed the peak of cases is yet to come –  and one of the really tragic things about this virus is that deaths lag cases by a few weeks. Preventing those deaths is also likely to be tremendously difficult, with the Hindustan Times reporting medical services and supplies are critically stretched, particularly oxygen. The oxygen shortage in particular has led to some appalling tragedies – the Indian Express reported on one such incident, in which there was no backup after an oxygen tank malfunctioned, leading to 24 people dying.

Nor is New Zealand alone in having travel restrictions on India right now. The Hindustan Times reports several more countries added them recently, including Australia, which didn’t impose an outright ban but has moved to reduce arrival numbers. Other countries with high population of Indian migrant workers have taken more severe measures. Several parts of India are currently in lockdown, including Mumbai, the commercial capital and largest city.

All of that has led to speculation that the ban could be extended, however that is by no means a certainty. Te Pūnaha Matatini investigator Professor Michael Plank didn’t directly call for an extension on the ban on Radio NZ yesterday, but did note that the high case volume makes it “difficult to resume travel”. The majority of cases being seen in MIQ a fortnight ago were coming from India, and that was before the case numbers in the country really escalated. But yesterday, PM Ardern restated that the ban was only ever intended to be temporary, particularly for citizens. Our live updates editor Stewart Sowman-Lund will be at the announcement today to cover it, so keep an eye on The Spinoff for the latest.

And sticking with international news, we’ve got a report today on another country that is suffering badly. Political editor Justin Giovannetti is originally from Canada, and left that country during the first wave. Now a third wave is ripping through the country, amid dangerous new variants of the virus and lacklustre progress on vaccination. The response at a national level appears to be patchy and incompetent, and blunt lockdowns are back as a result.




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